The Narwhal

The Mysterious Narwhal.

Opening statement: Reticent medium-sized tusked-whale causing no end of mystery.


Name: If you’re named by the Vikings chances are you’ll have a rather foreboding moniker. The word narwhal comes from the Viking nar, meaning corpse, referring to the narwhale’s mottled grey skin.

Narwhals breach
Photo By Glenn Williams (National Institute of Standards and Technology) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Aliases: Monodon monoceros; a.k.a. Moon whale; a.k.a Unicorn of the sea. Neighbourhood: The Arctic.Distinguishing features: The tusk sticking from its snout is an elongated tooth. The narwhal then is a toothed whale or odontoceti (see also dolphin, sperm whale). But what a tooth. All males have these ivory ‘tusks’ that grow to about half the length of its own body, and about 15% of females have them, which are much shorter.(For more amazing tusk facts see ‘More amazing tusk facts.) It is important to understand all numbers are educated estimates because much of what the narwhal does is in inhospitable areas for human study. Furthermore, the narwhal’s skill-set is very niche-specific; any taken into captivity have subsequently died.Vital statistics: Full-grown narwhals can grow between, approximately, 13ft to 18ft in length. Thus with tusks, males can measure between 18ft to 28ft which, in the language of the deep, is ‘as long as the longest killer whale.’ Adult body-weight ranges from 1,500 to 3,500 lb. Again, in the language of the deep this is ‘up to four massive jetskis’, or if you prefer in metric, ‘20 pirate’s treasure-chests’. Me Hearties.Behaviour: The narwhal is migratory, at least until it dies when it becomes transmigratory (citation needed).  A good poem is transmigratory and here is an excerpt of ‘Enigmas’ by Pablo Neruda,You question me about the wicked tusk of the narwhal,
and I reply by describing how the sea unicorn with the harpoon in it dies. The narwhal spends winters in small groups (5 to 10) beneath deep pack-ice hoping polar bears don’t bop them on the head when they come up for air. Summers are spent in large congregations (500 to 1000) in the shallower waters off coasts (Canada or Greenland) where they’re prone to Inuits on a subsistence hunt for whom narwhal skin has vital fats and vitamins. 

Shelf life: It is estimated the narwhal can live up to 50 years.

Arctic-shelf life: Well funnily enough, 50 years. It is estimated arctic summer ice will hang around until 2060, maybe 2080, then all bets are off. Whether you believe global-warming is man-made or actually a conspiracy of the gods against the narwhal, the fact is that the narwhal’s habitat is about to change for good. A narwhal born today, all 5 ft 175 Ibs of orca food, and that lives to 50, will see more change in its life than all its ancestors put together (citation needed).

The 21st century theme: Potential catastrophe for the narwhal will be the result of a, probably short-lived, battle between Evolution and Revolution. Let’s break it down: the narwhal is a concoction of specialized evolution. It has a very narrow diet of halibut, cod, shrimp and squid and in their pursuit has become a streamlined, super-sleek sea-predator that can dive as far as its vegetarian whale counterparts (800 to 1,500m).

It’s, take a bow narwhal, the only predator to triumph in the deep beneath the vast swathes of pack-ice with as little as 5% open water. Evolution has made a beauty, but evolution’s slow place and tinkering for millennia is doubtless no short-term match for the speedily approaching revolution in the planet’s ecosystem. 

Pessimistic much? The human response to the melting arctic has been decadent to say the least. Unfortunately for narwhal fans everywhere, and of course fans of as much world peace as possible please, the arctic looks set to become a theatre in which empires play for resources. There has been a recent breach in the arctic’s neutrality and flags nailed into the ice as competing empires and their resource-extraction companies circle the territory, fins out.In the meantime, peer-reviewed scientific evidence regarding systemic catastrophe gets distracted in abstract fisticuffs with other theories pushed around by vested interests. For example, the discovery of an ancient narwhal fossil in deep pack-ice suggests the arctic used to be warmer and means global warming is part of nature’s cycle. Hurrah for the oilmen!

Some timely fantasy: Throughout the middle-ages anyone who was anyone wanted a unicorn horn. Unicorns had all kinds of magic powers and short of riding one bareback to Arcadia, owning the horn was the next best thing. This was lucky for traders of the narwhal tusk which sold for loadsamoney; Queen Elizabeth had one, and most of the unicorn horns displayed in the many and very popular ‘cabinet of curiosities’ touring Europe at the time have later been identified as narwhal tusks.

Narwhal Horn
Photo by Brian Suda

More amazing tusk facts: Hollow, slightly flexible, very mysterious. What’s it for? At the theories pick n’ mix you can choose: establishing dominance in groups; breaking sea-ice; or my favourite, for better picking up song – in the underwater X Factor narwhals are among the most accomplished, their song a complicated come-hither of clicks, whistles and pops.

Closing argument: The narwhal teaches us that less is more. Save the Narwhals, Long live the Narwhal.Narwhal Breach photo by Glenn Williams (National Institute of Standards and Technology) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons